Sunday, August 31, 2003

A Rat with a Gun

It’s called Lotte (pronounced Lowtay) World. And, brother, it is jammed with fun. If I had to describe it I would say it is a theme park that seems to exist in that ethereal place where Knott’s Berry Farm® meets K-Mart®. I recently spent much of a day playing in this wonderland with several of the soldiers from my battalion as part of a 3-day retreat away from our home/work place. Lotte World screams to be commented on.

We arrived via subway shortly after the park opened. In order to get from the subway station to the actual park, one must possess a very sensitive global positioning system, an extremely acute sense of direction, or a Korean. Without one or more of these things you don’t stand a chance of ever reaching your destination. The reason is that the entrance to Lotte World is buried deep in the bowels of Seoul at the far end of an apparently endless cavern. In order to get the proper picture of the situation one must not envision a cave entering the side of a lonely mountain. Instead, one must envision a cave entering the side of a lonely mountain lined with all manner of vendors, or as I prefer to call them, crap peddlers. Man, they will sell you anything and everything. And the thing is that one shop will be stocked with cell phones and accessories and the very next shop will be stocked with more cell phones and accessories. After approximately 135,287 cell phone shops you arrive at the first of the 34,951 shoe stores followed immediately by the 587,012 cheesy dress sellers. And these do not line a single tunnel. Instead, you must navigate through a labyrinth that would make the Minotaur jealous. Once you have successfully moved through this maze of vendors, you come at last to the gates of nirvana … Lotte World.

The first thing one notices about Lotte World is its mascot. It is written into the World Theme Park Charter of 1274 that all amusement parks must have a mascot. Disneyland has Mickey Mouse. Six Flags has Bugs Bunny. Lotte World has…well, I’m not sure what that thing is. My compatriots and I stood for several moments discussing the species of the Lotte World mascot. Some said it was a squirrel…but where’s the big bushy tail? Some said it must be a raccoon…but what’s with those teeth? Still others thought it has got to be a chipmunk…come on, look at those eyes! All anyone knows for sure is that it belongs to the class mammalia and the subclass eutheria. I mean, really, a pongo pygmaeus would know that much! With the identity of the mascot’s species still undecided, and not knowing its name (since we don’t read Hongul) we braved entering the park not knowing what to expect.

As it turns out, Lotte World has much about it we could not ascertain from mere empirical observation. This held true in regards to the actual theme of this theme park. For the most part it was a smattering of 17th century Caribbean piracy infused with touches of medieval baroque, some Bavarian castly stuff, a little 23rd century futuristic technothings, some good old down home home flavor, and perhaps a dab of disco. This should give the reader a very vague sense of what Lotte World is all about to the casual observer, because frankly, having been there in person I still have only a very vague sense of what Lotte World is all about.

Being an amusement park, Lotte World had amusements. Adrenaline producing rides that leave amusee in a state of euphoria and with a deep-seated desire for more. One ride spun like a merry-go-round while swinging on a pendulum while another ride lifted the rider to dizzying heights only to let go and offer a brief free fall. But the ride that bears the most comment had to be the Sinbad ride. This is one of those indoor boat rides that take you into a dark tunnel where you slowly work your way through scenes of horror and fright, except on this ride they emphasized the “slowly” and seriously downplayed the “horror and fright”. The designers of this ride must have lived with the conviction that to drag riders at an almost imperceptibly slow pace past a hundred zillion plastic skeletons yammering chilling words in a strange tongue would produce maximum scarage. Can I just say here that this was not the case? In reality what this ride does is eat 20 minutes of your life. Riders of several nationalities could be overheard saying, “Man, I thought that would never end!”

Lunchtime rolled around and we headed for the food court. Here our Americanness came fully to bear. When coupled together, the words “food court” indicate certain things to the westerner. Things like pizzas, tacos, slushies, lemonade, pretzels, and hoagies. The producers of Lotte World have a different idea of what a “food court” is and it involves a choice of Korean food or Japanese food! So let’s see…hmmm…do I want the fire hot rice with meat of unknown origin or the raw fish and seaweed pate? I’ll just interject at this point that dinner never tasted so good!

In the heart of Lotte World sits an indoor ice rink complete with every Eric Hayden wannabe on the Korean peninsula. Adjacent to the ice rink is a state of the art bowling alley complete with dimly lit, smoke filled video game arcade. Next to the bowling alley is probably the most disturbing part of Lotte World. It is disturbing not only because of what it is but because of the several posters throughout the park informing guests of its presence and bidding them come and enjoy this most exciting of activities. The posters feature the indeterminate rodentish mascot of Lotte World pointing with one hand in the direction of said attraction and with the other hand brandishing a Glock 9mm. That’s right, Lotte World, family oriented theme-like amusement park has a shooting range. All one has to do is go up, pay a small fee and “rent” any of a number of weapons ranging from the kid friendly .22 caliber pistol to the Dirty Harry .44 caliber special. Approximately 15 weapons representing most major gun makers and most of the “popular” calibers are available to John Q. Citizen. Roughly $35 buys you 10 rounds and a human silhouette target. Fun, fun, fun.

So, as evening approached we departed Lotte World, and made our way out into the shop maze. We arrived back at the subway station approximately 8 hours later and headed home to ponder the events of the day. And the next time I see a Racchipmunsquirrel I’ll remember Lotte World and smile.

Tuesday, August 26, 2003

Notional Caffeine

There are many events in the military that you will never see in the civilian world, such as 200 people wearing identical clothes and no one being embarrassed. “Oh great, look he’s wearing camouflage, too. How embarrassing!” But more interesting than common clothing is the “alert”. This is basically notional and controlled panic. It is when everyone in a given unit or installation takes a day at least and physically practices what to do in a given contingency. That contingency could be a terrorist attack or a plane crash or a civil emergency of some sort. Last week we had what is called a NEO alert. While it may seem difficult to believe, the Army has devised a plan for saying Noncombatant Evacuation Operation. And last weeks exercise gave everyone lots of opportunities to say “NEO”. Another interesting thing about emergency situations in the military is that they never take place right after lunch. Usually, Army style emergencies occur within mere moments of attaining REM sleep. Our NEO exercise was no exception.

Bright and early the horns of hell sounded. To the seasoned Camp Bonifas dweller this sound means, “Get up and move quickly to your place of duty!” However, to those of us new to this place, the early morning siren meant our alarms were probably going off and if we would just hit it hard enough it would stop. But it didn’t and approximately 23 minutes later I found myself in a briefing indicating that the North Koreans had just begun to move south and we were in imminent danger. This was of course notional but it was sobering nonetheless. The entire camp was to be evacuated along with the DMZ Village of Tae Song Dong. Each section and platoon had a very distinct task that had been planned and briefed months and years in advance. The plan was in effect, all that was required was to execute it.

My role in this alert was to go through the motions like everyone else and do notionally what I would do actually were there to be an actual attack. After the meeting, I headed back to my office area and linked up with my assistant and a cup of coffee. Our vehicle was already loaded with our rucksacks, duffle bags, religious supplies and plenty of cold sodas. The idea is to be able to survive 30 to 60 days without resupply. If required we may have been able to pull it off, too, except for the fact that we had only one meal each. So while 30 to 60 days may have been something of a stretch, I truly believe we could have gone say, 30 to sixty minutes. Had this been a real alert and not just an exercise, we probably would have been over run by North Koreans quicker than you could say, “Did you start a pot of coffee?” Also we would have actually done some ministry. But since it was notional and since it is difficult, based on the nature of the business, to do notional ministry, we just kind of hung out for a while and talked about what we would be doing in different circumstances. After the ups and downs of imaginary ministry, we got the word that some or other event had notionally taken place that would normally precipitate a move for us. So we moved. We grabbed our coffee, jumped in the van, and drove to the aid station, which if the roads are clear and the weather is accommodating is approximately 28 seconds from my office. Quickly we rushed inside, pretending to be reacting to emergency situations, and in our most simulated voice of panic said, “Where’s the coffee?” The aid station is an ideal place for me during this kind of a situation because it is where one would normally find victims of a war situation and those looking for coffee. So we fit right in.

After hanging with the docs for a while, again a code word rang out over the radio indicating that we were to move to a central point where everyone left on camp would evacuate after the simulated destruction of all assets remaining behind. Here it is a good thing this was notional because had the Angry Pink Hoards come rushing up the road they would have found us standing around, sipping the last vestiges of the wonder brew and complementing ourselves as to how well this thing was notionally going. Finally the convoy formed up and we headed out along the preplanned escape route.

Just as we were preparing to cross the bridge to freedom it was notionally destroyed, and I notionally soiled my notional self. Plan B went quickly into effect and we all headed down to a predesignated point on the bank of the river. Once there, all were accounted for and we began to cross the river to safety. This was not notional. That is to say, we did not actually pretend to notionally cross the river. In other words, our crossifying was unnotionalized. We got in rubber rafts and really went over the river after coming through the woods. I got a little wet, about up to mid thigh. This would include my feet, which were in boots at the time, which happened to be filled with water. For the soldier in the US Army, having wet boots and feet is not really a problem. The difficulty comes during the slow, painful drying process. As the water slowly seeps out of the boot the pants stick to the legs, the leather boots begin to constrict ever so slightly, and madness begins. One can loose ones mind within minutes due to the drying itch. This is when, as a result of the clothing drying slowly, all skin begins to itch. Victims become irrational as they scratch and loose all modesty as they try to strip off all damp items. At least I do.

Once across the river, approximately 7 hours after it began at way-too-early o’clock, the exercise ended. We loaded busses strategically filled with sleep dust and tried desperately to stay awake for the long ride back over the Imjin River to Camp Bonifas. This was no easy task as the ride took approximately 15 minutes. I’m still not sure how we took 6 hours to go 15 minutes, but we managed swimmingly. Once back on Camp Bonifas the day was over…or so I thought (insert diabolical laughter and thunder clap here). The final part of the day was the ever-popular After Action Review. This is when all key leaders in the battalion sit around for about 12 hours and tell each other how well they did and what they thought of the exercise overall. This takes a very long time as each person complements every other person on what they saw during every phase of the operation from their perspective. It’s making me tired just thinking about it.

I need a cup of coffee.

Monday, August 04, 2003

The Heart and Seoul of Land Navigation

There are certain skills in which every soldier, regardless of Military Occupational Specialty (MOS), must be competent. Skills such as marksmanship with the M-16 or M-4 rifle, hand to hand fighting techniques, and the proper use of Brasso®. These are skills that are indispensable in a time of war. One soldier skill in particular, however, is of utmost importance ... land navigation or land nav. It is the ability to make one's way across unfamiliar terrain using only the most rudimentary tools ... a map and a compass. Knowing how to do this simple task can save a lost soldiers life.

This weekend my assistant and I escorted 22 newly assigned soldiers into Seoul, Korea for what we call Chaplain's Land Nav. The intent is to orient new soldiers to the terrain and culture so that they can find their way around the subways and alleys of this huge city. Chaplains Land Nav also serves to get them out of the barracks for a day and gives me an opportunity to interact with them in a casual setting and begin to build relationships that may one day assist them in to the Kingdom.

Our day began at the subway station near Yongsan, the Army base in Seoul, where we divided the soldiers into 6-man teams, gave them a map, explained how to utilize the subway, gave them a list of places they were required to find and sent them off on something of an urban scavenger hunt. As my team set out, I quickly assessed the situation, conferred with my compatriots, and considered that it was 11am and I had not had a cup of coffee. So bringing all my leadership talents to bear, I decided that the first order of business was to find Starbucks®. This decision would prove to be the deciding factor in the success of our day for when we arrived we did not find just any coffee shop. Instead we found five floors of java joy. Five beautiful floors dedicated to the worship of the great bean god. Five floors of caffeinated bliss. It was an awesome and delightful sight. Quickly I checked my map and discovered that regardless of where we were, I needed some Joe. Once inside our newly discovered Den of Delight I ordered a cup of black gold and waited in line to pay. When the attendant pointed to the register (she spoke very little English) I wondered if maybe my brew of ecstasy was to be served in a solid gold chalice. I had to pay 2750! Come on man, it's just a cup of coffee! As it turns out I was in Korea at the time so the price equated to about $2.50. That's a bit more reasonable, thank you.

After leaving Shangri-Liquid we headed out once again into the mean streets of Seoul. Approximately 15 million people live there and a good percentage of them sell shoes. I know this because as we made our way to our next point of interest we passed through what I like to call, "The never ending expanse of shoe sales in every conceivable style and color where they sell at least 15 million pairs of shoes none of which are very tasteful or look extremely comfortable." Finally we succeeded in passing through shoeland, worked our way through goldfishandotherdomesticaedwatercreatures land, and arrived safely at the Wholesale Toy Section of Seoul. We looked around for a while finding cool toys we claimed to be looking at for our children back home, and then headed out to stop number three ... lunch. To find lunch one must get back on the subway, stand among every resident of Seoul inside a space the size of a small family sedan, and wait until the tide of people wish to get off, where you hope to be deposited at your desired destination. Fortunately, we made it and headed to "lunch".

Lunch was to be found in an area of town called the Something Unpronounceable By the Western Tongue Market. In the SUBWTM you don't have to look very far to find something newly dead or something else wishing it was. We walked slowly around trying not to participate in our mephitic surroundings saying such intelligent things as, "Oh man, what is THAT?" and "Dude! Oh my gosh is that a pigs face?" It was in this context that we found a small place to eat. When the host saw that there were 6 of us he motioned in Korean for us to use the dining area upstairs. This nearly upset the apple cart. The window was open, the air conditioner was off, and there was a large fan ostensibly circulating the air. Actually it was pulling "fresh" air in from the market below and forcing it into the upstairs dining oven. Our waiter arrived, turned on the AC, and asked to take our order. We had no idea what the menu said so we pointed to the lovely pictures on the wall. In this we discovered that marketing is a global conspiracy with similar tactics around the world such as making pictures that look appetizing when in reality the dish portrayed bears little resemblance to any thing edible. That's not all true. My dish kind of looked like my picture and in the end was not all bad. It consisted of half a bowl of the worlds hottest rice topped with fresh cut vegetables and a raw egg that cooked immediately upon being stirred into the molten rice. Stirred together it makes a very delicious and very filling meal. A couple of my fellow travelers were not so fortunate with their picture vs. reality combinations. One of them pointed a picture labeled "meat" and actually didn't eat until we found a Burger King® several hours later. The other pointed to a picture labeled "Welsh Pancake". This would prove to be a misnomer entirely as it was nothing like a pancake and I can't imagine anyone eating it, let alone the God-fearing and peace-loving Welsh. It consisted of what we believed to be crab meat and vegetables fried into an unidentified, discolored gelatinous substance and topped with some kind of tentacles. That's right ... tentacles ... suckers and all. His immediate response was, "I don't even do sea food." Being the leader, I assured him no one I know had ever died eating that stuff, whatever it was. And with that he dove right in and spent approximately 1 hour eating everything but the tentacles (which weren't all that bad). Once we finished lunch we wandered back into the Market of Ex-Life and off to our next stop.

This time it was a modern mall with all the creature comforts. For a moment I could have sworn I was home except that everyone was short and speaking a foreign language. Also, the streets outside had to be empty because brother that place was packed. Koreans are probably one of the most gracious and friendly peoples in the world. But when you cram them all into one huge mall ... well, does "cacophony" mean anything to you? Across the street from Decibel Mall was a Buddhist temple built over 700 years ago. While not a large place, it was quite impressive. Surrounded by the noise of one of the world's largest cities, it was strangely peaceful. My assistant and I had to nearly tackle one of our guys about to step up onto a platform the Koreans were bowing in front of. Now, I'm not all that impressed with praying to stones, but I'm less impressed with getting the daylights beat out of me by angry old people for desecrating their religious sites. So with an international incident averted, we got back on the subway and headed into Yongsan. And together, as a group, with the kind of comeraderie one finds only in the military, we ate dinner at Taco Bell®.